Exploring the effects of China’s now-defunct one-child policy, which was put in place by the country’s government in the late 1970s in an effort to control a ballooning population, Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing’s One Child Nation tracks the intricate intersections between the personal and political elements of a society. The documentary, which follows Wang as she returns to her village in the Jiangxi Province of Eastern China after years of living in the United States, is a wrenching work of personal journalism that grows into a vast narrative concerning nesting conspiracies to perpetrate a campaign of institutionalized kidnapping and murder. Throughout the film’s often shocking developments, Wang, who appears on camera with her subjects, maintains a reportorial sobriety that’s both poignant and elegant. She’s a remarkable blend of filmmaker and detective.
After showing statistics that serve to orient the audience to the basics of the one-child policy—it was officially begun in 1979 and ended in 2015, when China returned to a two-child policy—Wang yokes together the personal and political implications of Chinese ideology with a startling admission. Her very name, Nanfu, embodies the resentment of women that drives the one-child obsession. “Nan” roughly translates to “man,” and “fu” to “pillar,” meaning that her family had wished for a son who would be a pillar for their village. Similarly, when exceptions were allowed to the one-child policy, which were frequent, it was because families had a daughter and wanted to keep trying for a son. Such an exemption was easier to come by in rural villages, and Wang’s grandfather, interviewed here, stepped in to prevent the local authorities from forcibly sterilizing Wang’s mother. Five years after giving birth to Nanfu, Wang’s mother had a son, Zhihao, who became the favored child.
Wang doesn’t indulge in the sensationalistic outrage that’s fashionable in first-person documentary filmmaking. Instead, she empathetically speaks to the villagers she meets, allowing them to describe hideous actions with a casualness that reflects the profound influence of the Chinese Communist Party on its population. Forced sterilizations and late-term abortions are sometimes spoken of here as one might a root canal, and Wang and Zhang contrast their modern interviews with footage of the wide-reaching propaganda espousing the one-child policy, which appeared in children’s textbooks, operas, playing cards, billboards, and on the walls and homes of neighborhoods as street graffiti.
With the exception of a midwife who feels that she must atone for her role in thousands of forced abortions and sterilizations, the elders featured throughout One Child Nation often appear to feel little remorse or responsibility, writing an authoritarian nightmare off as an enforcement of policy. And with the exception of Zhihao, who feels guilt for his privileged status, much of Wang’s family confidently insists on the superiority of sons over daughters, speaking such beliefs right into the camera held by a daughter of their own clan. In one of the documentary’s most haunting scenes, a group of grandfathers discern the difference between “immediate” and “extended” grandsons, as the former are sired by the men in the family, and the latter by women who have been married off to other families. Wang’s staunchly matter-of-fact stance in such moments isn’t only artistic but heroic.
Rich in such intimate detail, the film attains a more epic power as it burrows deeper into the effects of the one-child policy. Inside dumpsters, Wang and Zhang uncover photos of discarded fetuses aborted at advanced stages. And they hear stories of daughters abandoned in market places so that families could try again for a son (Wang’s grieving uncle remembers the corpse of his abandoned daughter, who had mosquito bites all over her face), and of women “tied up like pigs” and taken to be sterilized or to have abortions.
Following this trail of indignities, the filmmakers uncover a human trafficking operation that, with the government’s collusion, saw abandoned children being scooped up off the streets and placed into orphanages that would go on to forge records in order to sell the children to international parents. At this point, One Child Nation offers a bit of hope, spotlighting an American couple, Brian and Long Lan Stuy, who adopted three Chinese girls and speak of their organization, Research China, which helps parents trace the lineage of their children. Scenes of Brian and Long Lan researching together in companionable silence inform the film with a warmth that serves as a brief reprieve from the film’s accounts of madness and denial.
It’s Wang and Zhang’s understanding of propaganda as a tool for rationalizing atrocity that provides One Child Nation with its most resonant reverberations. Elders often speak in the same platitudes that we see in stock footage, and a portrait of Mao hangs above one subject’s head as he speaks. The Chinese government’s rationalization of death, via the purportedly positive effect on the economy, rings a number of contemporary bells, and Wang underscores one of them directly in her despairing closing thoughts. China’s enforcement of abortion may sound like the precise opposite of America’s growing abortion bans, but both are rooted in a contempt of women, in an urge to deprive them of the freedom of reproductive choice.